18 July 2014

Morocco day 5: Fes

Fes is Morocco’s third largest city, with a population of about 1.2 million people, and is made up of three quite distinct areas. Fes el-Bali (the old Fes medina) is one of the largest living medieval cities in the world, a walled maze of 9400 streets within an area of about 280 hectares that was founded in the 9th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. West of the medina is Fes el-Jdid (new Fes), an extension to the old medina built in the 13th century, and the third main area is the Ville Nouvelle, with wide boulevards full of shops, cafes and restaurants, built in the 1920s. You can move from an early medieval bazaar to an air-conditioned super-modern shopping mall is the blink of an Arab eye in Fes.

Though our hotel was in the Ville Nouvelle, we spent most of our time in Fes in the old medina, on a full-day walking tour. However, our tour started with our local guide, Fatimah, showing us the beautiful gates of the king’s local palace, then we boarded our trusty minibus to drive to a viewpoint high above the city, where we got a really good idea of how extensive the city is. It was an impressive sight, both for the 365 minarets within the old medina and for the sea of satellite dishes on every rooftop!

From there, we drove to a ceramics and tile factory, for a tour and shopping – this was definitely a day when you could have spent a small fortune on the most exquisite examples of local craftsmanship – how I resisted most temptations I still don’t know! At this first factory, we received a guided tour and explanation of how the goods were made, were able to photograph the skilled artisans at work, watch them chipping coloured tiles into the shapes required for intricate mosaic patterns or chipping away the fired colour to make relief patterns or painting complex designs onto ceramic wares. Exiting through the gift shop, I had a serious case of plate envy when Rhonda bought a beautiful blue and white and silver plate but the shipping cost as much as the plate and I certainly couldn’t have carried it around for the rest of this trip – so I resisted.

Next, our medina tour started for real. We were warned of two things before we started walking: first, keep up and keep an eye out for the other group members because if you got lost, you could be in serious trouble and, second, remember the word ‘ballac’ (not sure that’s the right spelling) – it means ‘get out of the way’ or ‘watch out’. The medina streets are so narrow that small wheeled carts and donkeys are the only way to transport goods in and out, and the donkey stops for no one!

We saw so many different sights during our walk that day that it’s hard to remember everything so here’s just a small selection …

We got a good view of the famous Fes tanneries from the top floor of a leather shop. The smell was quite powerful so we were all given a sprig of mint to wave under our noses while we shopped. From leather purses and handbags to slippers and jackets, the selection of colourful items on sale was enormous. I resisted!

At left, our guide Fatimah, with a couple of the group

At the lantern shop, there were lamps and lanterns of every conceivable shape and size, for use with electric light or candle power, and casting the most lovely shadow patterns on surrounding walls and ceiling. I resisted!

Left, peparing to dye the silk and, right, weaving it
The weavers’ workshop was interesting as they make fabric using strands of ‘silk’ beaten from the fibrous leaves of the agave plant. Here, we were all dressed up in head-gear for a fun group photo. Here, too, I resisted the bed linen and large throws but I did buy a couple of scarves – ‘small, easy to pack, always useful’, I told myself. I couldn't resist everything!

We also visited the Koranic university, saw the oldest minaret in the medina and the oldest mosque – currently being refurbished, and we stopped often at small shops along the way for explanations about the things we saw: the furniture used in wedding ceremonies, the use of henna to paint designs on hands and feet, for photos of camel heads at the butchers and sharks heads at the fishmongers, and much more besides.

Our guide Issam resting his weary feet while we looked around the university
The sights, sounds, smells, colours of that day were almost overwhelming – it was a fabulous insight into local life and into how that life had been lived for centuries past. A Fes of the heart!

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